Tourism and border management & infrastructure

In December 2007, equipped with a valid C4 Centroamericana Visa, I attempted to enter Guatemala from Honduras, hoping to make a day trip from Copan to Antigua. It still baffles me that I was turned away. The reason given to me was, the visa, in combination with my Indian passport, wasn’t accepted at that particular border checkpoint. 4-ish years later, in 2012, a flight from San Francisco via Chicago weathered a storm, arriving into its final destination- Guatemala City. 13 hours late, but I was finally in Guatemala, which I then called my ‘revenge trip’ into the country.

Lake Atitlan
Guatemala, from my 'revenge trip'

A few years later, we flew from Berlin to Geneva, and crossed overland into France’s Jura mountains, without once bringing out our passports. And my favourite border crossing story is when my tour bus went from Norway to Finland while chasing northern lights, and finding success on the other side. No passports involved. Compared to Central America, the European Union’s very porous country borders, clearly present entirely different experiences of overland crossing between two countries.

Tromso, Norway

My most recent read is Riya Sinha’s recent working paper- a fantastic examination of India’s border management infrastructure, and the role it plays in facilitating regional connectivity. Many points and information presented in the paper (and borrowed here) led to a meditation into the role of border management in tourism, particularly in India.

The working paper talks about how India’s land border management ideated in 2000 as an aftermath of the Kargil War between India and Pakistan. The key driving point, at the time was securitization of the borders, that further extended to checking illegal activities. Trade and travel had been treated secondary. Since 2014, with the Indian government’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy, and a recognition of the lost opportunity in travel and trade due to inefficient border infrastructure, some developments have been observed, especially around ICPs (Integrated Check Posts). ICPs are posts that facilitate both trade and passenger movement, supported by the application of better infrastructure and technology.

A 2018 World Bank study places trade between South Asian countries to be close to US$ 67 billion, against the actual figure of US$23 billion. The same study states that regional economic integration in South Asia stands at only 5%. Given trade through land borders is a small percent of India’s global trade, there has been limited attention given to further development of our border infrastructure. However, I believe that with tourism still often left out from most definitions of international trade, the potential of cross border tourism is larger than expected, but remains unrecognised.

Through a project last year, I learnt that tourism on the Buddhist Circuit covering sites in India and Nepal suffers because of infrastructure inefficiencies, including bottlenecks at Sunaili, the border checkpoint between the two countries. A high proportion of third-country tourists transit from India to Nepal’s Lumbini through the Bhairahawa-Nautanwa/Sunauli border checkpost. Given the cost advantage, the land route is preferred by those on the Buddhist circuit over taking a direct flight between India and Bhairahawa or Kathmandu in Nepal. Though India and Nepal share an open border as per the 1950 Indo-Nepal Treaty of Peace and Friendship, it is encouraging that the countries have signed an MoU for construction of four ICPs along the shared border. Additionally, India had committed approximately Rs. 500 crore (US$ 100 million) towards the construction of mirror ICPs across the border in Nepal.

The paper also states that till the early 1960s the Ganga and Brahmaputra waterways were well-connected between India, Nepal and Bangladesh (East Pakistan, at the time). It is my opinion that trade on the waterways could have organically evolved into river cruise tourism, had the bi/tri-lateral relationships persisted. However, there is promise for the future, with the the Maritime India Vision 2030 recognising the potential of river cruise tourism between India and Bangladesh. The same can be imagined for rail services, much like the Eurail pass, and there are efforts by the Indian government to establish rail linkages with Nepal and Bangladesh.

Of course, before any of these tourism products can be planned and implemented, they need to be supported by efficient and future-fit border management infrastructure and systems.

In the wake of Covid-19, the hesitation for air travel, and the emergence of tourism bubbles, the role of land border checkpoints becomes especially imperative. With the tourism industry nosediving across the world, regional tourism (following domestic tourism), could save several tourism-dependent economies from the death knell. Compounding this with recognition of the climate crisis and an emergence of climate-conscious travel, many can be expected to shift travel styles to include more proximate and overland travel as opposed to air travel. The importance of land border management and infrastructure, especially in the near future, cannot be denied.

A brief look at some of India’s cross-border infrastructure projects:

  1. Asian Highway Network: linkages and connectivity via road between India, Myanmar, Thailand (operational), further linked to Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam

  2. BBIN MVA: The Bangladesh Bhutan India Nepal Motor Vehicle Agreement will permit the member states to ply their vehicles in each other's territory for transportation of cargo and passengers, including third country transport and personal vehicles.

  3. Railway routes: Development or upgrade of Jogbani–Biratnagar-Katahari and Jayanagar–Bardibas (Nepal) and Agartala–Akhaura and Chilahati–Haldibari (Bangladesh)

  4. Inland waterways on Ganga and Brahmaputra with Nepal and Bangladesh